HR Management & Compliance

Understanding Your Role in Sexual Harassment Prevention

Sexual harassment has been top of mind for most HR professionals as the #MeToo movement gained momentum over the past year. Employers, employees, and HR departments alike are striving to create safe workplaces for all, and they’re getting some help from state and local legislators. So far, more than 30 jurisdictions—including New York and even New York City—have introduced more than 100 pieces of legislation in 2018 toward sexual harassment prevention.

While it’s a great step in the right direction, for these laws to have the desired impact, employers and HR professionals must be aware of the requirements and apply all necessary policies and trainings in a timely manner.

Before you can help your organization comply with the applicable sexual harassment prevention requirements, you must first understand what defines this behavior. Sexual harassment is broad but very fact-specific. It can be overt (such as inappropriate touching, unwanted sexual advances, or telling crude jokes) or subtle (including interfering with an individual’s ability to perform his or her job because of his or her gender). Each incident must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but types of sexual harassment can include unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances; sexually explicit statements; sexually oriented gestures, noises, remarks, jokes, or comments; remarks the recipient feels are offensive or objectionable; sexual or discriminatory displays or publications anywhere in the workplace; and other harassing or hostile conduct that’s directed at recipients because of their sex.

In today’s evolving workplace, it’s also important to note that individuals may be subject to unlawful sexual harassment from a supervisor, subordinate, employee, intern, independent contractor, temporary or contract worker, vendor, client, visitor, or even a customer.

The potential costs of a sexual harassment complaint against a business can be steep, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to understand and comply with sexual harassment prevention requirements. The typical harassment claim can take nearly 318 days to be settled, according to the 2017 Hiscox Guide to Employee Lawsuits, and some estimates place the average legal costs to defend and settle a claim to be upward of $160,000—not to mention the irreparable damage a sexual harassment claim can have on your company’s reputation and the morale and productivity in the workplace.

Comprehensive sexual harassment prevention training is one way to reduce these risks in your workplace. In fact, several states require sexual harassment prevention training for some or all employees. In New York state, for example, all employers with one or more employees working in the state must provide annual sexual harassment prevention training for every covered employee—including part-time, seasonal, and temporary employees. The initial training must be completed by October 9, 2019. The training must be interactive and should be provided in the language the employee speaks. It must include an explanation of sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the Department of Labor in consultation with the Division of Human Rights, examples of conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment, and employees’ rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating complaints, among other components.

No matter where your organization does business, part of your HR role is to adopt and implement policies and procedures to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition to model materials and other guidance that may be provided by enforcing agencies to help employers meet the state’s or city’s unique requirements, businesses can also turn to an HR services provider to help them comply with new or existing provisions. State-specific requirements can be both comprehensive and complex. Even the most seasoned HR professional will likely have questions around the specific components of state-mandated notice, policy, and education programs. A reputable HR services provider will have a team of compliance experts on staff to help businesses ensure their policies and practices align with the requirements of their particular state (or states if they operate in multiple locations).

Tammy Tyler is an Employment Law Compliance Manager at Paychex.